Solomon derives his title from a remark by one of the Soviet artists: “You see for us, even when we come to the West,/ we remain like academics,/ looking out at the world from an irony tower.” This malapropism captures the situation of the Soviet artists, forced for years to cultivate a covert art that escaped officialdom, when naive Western collectors opened their ample wallets.
After setting the scene in his first chapter, Solomon provides historical background in chapter 2. Beginning with the World Festival of Youth held in Moscow in 1957, he traces the growth of three major schools: the Lianozovo group, the Sots, and a group centering around Dmitriy Prigov, all of whom flourished in the 1970’s. Bolstered by the Mukhomors (“Toadstools”) in the 1980’s, these groups joined in a loose federation called the Seminar and published an informal newsletter called MANI. The increasing boldness of the various groups, including the Odessa circle, led to much harassment until the advent of glasnost. The artists in Leningrad constituted a more bohemian, laid-back enclave at this time.
In chapter 3, “They Came West,” Solomon recounts the Soviets’ experience in the West, which began with exhibitions in Paris and Berlin in 1988. Soon Soviet artists were frequenting New York, London, and other international art centers. Much of what happened to them was dismaying, but a great deal was also extraordinarily funny. For sheer hilarity and zaniness, nothing compares with the Leningrad group’s participation in a concert. As part of the fashion show, one of the events, a stage direction dictated, “At this point, the models should hit the stage.” This puzzling idiom induced the Russians to do just that: “they stood in a line and hit the stage with their fists for a good twenty minutes.”
In chapter 4, “Home Again,” Solomon describes his return to Moscow in June, He spent most of the summer living in Furmanny, the “large, dilapidated” building that housed a warren of artist studios. His account of this period is rich with details of his personal impressions.
Chapter 5, “Hither and Yon,” finds Solomon back in Moscow in November 1989, visiting at a dacha and renewing acquaintances before following the artists to shows in various Western cities. His story closes in Stockholm, with his friends advising him on his book: “Be sure to make it funny.” He did. And he made it extraordinarily observant and put it all together in excellent prose.